Shock Factor Overload – Titus Andronicus Review


I’m loathe to say much more than that about Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Titus Andronicus, for fear of ruining the impact director Adena Jacobs is obviously going for.

Artistic Director Peter Evans excitedly calls it a “boldly experimental and confronting” reimagining of a challenging play. Other adjectives which come to mind are shocking, grotesque and disturbing. Without giving too much away, we’re talking plenty of bare flesh, blood and faeces.

It’s a highly visual, stylised production, more about the imagery than the plot or characterisation. Digital, cinematic-style technology is employed to bold effect, with microphones on some voices (something I’ve never before seen in a Bell Shakespeare performance), voice over, and most notably, oversized, zoomed in video projections of strange things – an exploration of the moist, red inside passages and orifices of the human organism, for one. The acts are broken down and introduced by self-reflexive titles which isolate, oversimplify and normalise the most violent peaks in the play. One such title calls the intense scene we are about to witness a “snuff film”, drawing a few scattered laughs.

Such directorial decisions, together with the dark subject matter of the play itself, combine to give an overall nightmarish feel to the experience. It is for me so comedically macabre and so OTT bloody that it is like the monstrous love child of a Burton-Lynch-Tarantino ménage à trois.

But is this appropriate for the classical stage? Is it not sacrilege to do that to The Bard?

Let us not forget that Shakespeare never attempted to be safe or reassuring. In fact, his works have always offended and disturbed audiences. In 1765, the great critic Samuel Johnson wrote that certain scenes in Shakespeare were “too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition”. Titus Andronicus, by far the bloodiest of all the tragedies, with a death toll of 35, featuring beheadings of children, rape, mutilation and cannibalism, was censored and palatably rewritten for the 19th century stage.

Really, to cleanse and sanctify Shakespeare, disguising the gore in the tragedies and removing the swear words and bawdy jokes from the comedies, would be the real sacrilege. Not to mention the fact that modern audiences are hungry for precisely all that stuff.

John Bell, when he established his company in 1990, made it his aim not to treat Shakespeare with reverence but to be inventive, experimental and challenging. I’ve noticed a trend in recent years since Evans has had the reigns, which I understand and support, of putting on some of the lesser known and not so revered plays, such as Titus Andronicus, and using them as an opportunity to try new and different things, to really push the boundaries and test how far audiences and critics will allow them to go. They wisely understand that if they were to experiment too wildly with Macbeth or Hamelt, for example, they would likely face extreme backlash for daring to touch the holy grail without white gloves.

So, whilst it will inevitably not be in everyone’s taste – I personally admit to being one of those sensitive snowflakes – those who disapprove will say, “at least they haven’t done that to my favourite. I’ll give them Titus but not Romeo.” That’s today, but who knows about tomorrow? Perhaps public appetite will dictate that more of the same is in order and no big titles will be left on their ivory pedestals.

As far as the actors go, there are highs and lows. Jane Montgomery Griffiths gives a brave and raw performance in the queerified title role. Tariro Mavondo’s opening night nerves resulted in several vocal stumbles, which would likely not have been noticed had she not restarted her lines and repeated them word-for-word from the beginning. Sadly this happened several times. In contrast is the fluency and ease of 15-year-old Grace Truman in her first production for Bell Shakespeare. Her reading of Ovid’s Metamorphosis layered over the thankfully symbolic deflowering scene is subtle and curious. The bright future of this delightful little talent shines through the dystopian world surrounding her. I look forward to seeing her again, perhaps as Juliet?

Alicia Tripp

Alicia Tripp is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC’s Limelight and State of the Arts magazines. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney. As a pianist, ballerina and polylinguist, reviewing Sydney’s premiere concerts, operas, ballets and stage shows allows her to combine her passion for music, dance and the written word.

Titus Andronicus is showing at Sydney Opera House Playhouse until 27 September.

Purchase tickets now. The venue is accessible.

Disclaimer: Alicia Tripp was an invited guest of Bell Shakespeare.